Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Instructions

 Not until you were surprised into thinking about it did you realize how strong a part the element of surprise figures in your reading and writing tastes.

The surprise came when you'd seen a sweater described in a catalogue, decided this would be a splendid sweater to own, went online, then ordered the sweater.  You tried the sweater on to see if it fit, but there was no surprise when it did.  Since you'd bought other merchandise from the seller, you were not surprised at the evidences of quality, the satisfaction at the sweater's construction, or the quality of its coloring and styling.

The surprise came in the form of the enclosed instructions, pretty well telling you something you'd taken for granted.  You know how and pretty much when to wear a sweater.  There was no surprise in the information that the sweater was washable, because the descriptive copy had covered that aspect.

Sweater in hand, you began to contemplate the number of things you deal with that come with instructions, your contemplation turning to degrees of amusement or bemusement when the object comes from a point of origin where English is not the first language.

Some of the nonfiction books you acquire have prefatory comments, more or less along the lines of "How to use this book."  You were--to your surprise--asked by the publisher of your most recent nonfiction book to supply instructions for what the publisher called "the first-time reader," thus your book has in effect two sets of instruction.

Some works of fiction also have prefatory notes, but so far as you can see, these have to do with some kind of conversation about the time or setting or debts of one kind or another owed to friends or sources of information.  You've not been in the circumstances where you've discussed the need or lack thereof for fiction to have instructions for reading although, now that you can think of it, being fueled with a bottle or so of a pinot noir could produce some interesting results.

At a most basic level, your aim in writing is to be understood by most who read the work. At an even more basic level, you wrote the work in the first place as a part of a process to help you understand the individuals, circumstances, and feelings you have written about.  After you have written a particular piece, you would be disappointed rather than surprised should you arrive at the question of why you wrote the work.  That said, you would not be at all surprised--in fact you'd experience gratitude--to have made adjunct discoveries you'd not anticipated.

The usual approach for fiction and much personal essay is to push yourself via your characters or questions of emotional behavior or intellectual logic to a point where you'd then had to reach well beyond your means and comfort zones for answers.  Indeed, you needed several years of practice, thought, and additional revision to grasp this simple approach to process.  At one point, you'd not have been able to cope with such concepts as surprise or even instructions as they related to your ultimate goals.  You consider it fortunate to have moved past that point, arriving at the literary equivalent of mid game, where you've had enough experiences with living and with practice and instructions relative to writing to supply you with a toolkit of sorts.  Using your available tools, you can connect things you previously did not think could be connected.  Using other of your available tools, you could observe a situation you'd previously tinker with.

The best instructions become the techniques you absorb from reading other writers from other times as well as writers from your own times and from writers from genera you do not normally read.  You must seek writers who are older and younger than you, writers from other eras, other cultures, and other times.  You must look at your own work with a critical eye, asking what the work may need or, contrarily, what can be removed.

In many ways, writing any narrative, even a simple set of instructions, is like packing for a trip. Have you over- or under packed?  Are there things you've thrown in because--well, because you'd gone to the trouble of "looking them up" and "learning" them, might as well thrown them in the soup, right?  Are there things you know that you've not explained because, hey, everyone should know that?  Are you in fact describing feelings you hope your characters are feeling but cannot be sure about ?

Surprise and discovery link with a purpose.  Today, having subscribed to something on the Internet, you were sent a set of instructions that came as a series of surprises, beginning with the most surprising of all, that you had no idea what the instructions were instructing you to do.  The sweater you were talking about earlier came with instructions related to the temperature at which the seller recommended for washing the garment.

There are things to discover.  Perhaps your entire attitude toward washing sweaters needs to undergo a revision.  Perhaps the thing you subscribed to on the Internet today will lead you to an entire new plateau of awareness.

Many years back, you dutifully saved the tinfoil covering for containers of Ovaltine, a compound to be mixed with chilled milk, then drunk.  You were feeling confident because the previous premium from Ovaltine was a Little Orphan Annie Shake-up Mug, the better to mix your Ovaltine.  You figured a way of shaking up your Ovaltine (which you were not all that crazy about in the first place) with utensils in your mother's excellent kitchen.  But now, Ovaltine was offering you this opportunity to get a Little Orphan Annie Decoder, which you wanted with a serious passion, at least enough to  drink two containers of Ovaltine for the foil tops, and the twenty-five cents, which you arranged for by selling wire coat hangers to Earl's Cleaners on Fairfax Avenue.  (Even now, you can hear your father's mild irritation:  "What happened to all the coat hangers?  Can't we keep any coat hangers around here?")

The Little Orphan Annie Decoder was worth all the effort and the interminable wait attendant on that sort of premium.  But there was one problem.  You had the means to decode or encode any number of things, but you had not yet reached the stage, call it a stage of awareness or sophistication, or whatever you will, where you had anything worth encoding and you were certainly not at the point where you had access to things requiring decoding.

You were bailed out of this quandary thanks to Pennee, your sister,who introduced you to an ancient language called Linear B, which provided an even greater platform than your Little Orphan Annie Decoder.  She in so many ways sent you skittering along toward your temporary destiny of being a smartass kid, and then a smartass adult who happened to write about surprises.

Post a Comment